[Allahummabārik. May Allah bless my writing endeavours, as well as you, the reader. Ameen]
A few days ago my best [is it childish to constantly point out that she’s my best friend? Perhaps] – best – friend and I sat down to record an episode for my podcast, which we had decided to entitle, ‘The Good Life’. It is made extremely evident, simply by taking a look at the world around us, and by having a couple of sincere conversations with people, that many people are simply not living ‘good’ lives, for the most part: many of us live in metropolises – human zoos, if you will – in which our lives are characterised by confusion, stress, dissatisfaction, and the endless endeavours we commit to, so as to distract ourselves.
Now, there was a slight issue with the podcast app that I use; this episode has been ‘uploading’ for days now. It is likely that the end result will never actually end up coming into publication. So, and while I am still able to recall some of the unexpected but meaningful things that Tamanna and I spoke about, I present to you a blog article on the topic of ‘The Good Life’.
For this episode-which-is-now-an-article, I decided to conduct some (qualitative) research: I carried out some interviews – some face-to-face, and some via online platforms. I amassed a sample that was (hopefully) as representative as I could make it. It contained some Muslims; some atheists; some agnostics; some Christians. Men and women; some little children. Working-class individuals; middle-class individuals. White Brits; immigrants. People who identify as ‘genderqueer’ and such; people who do not. Introverts; extroverts. Students; professionals… I posed four specific questions to each of them, and examined their answers. Their responses were rather interesting… in particular as a result of how similar they were, between these individuals who are rather different to one another on the surface level.
1) What is a good life?
I think that, although the interrogation of people’s minds with this particular question tends to give rise to a lot of deep-in-thought “I’m-going-to-need-a-moment…or-a-hundred” expressions, the answer to this highly pressing, pretty much universally asked question, is already within us.
Most of the respondents agreed that a ‘good’ life is not one that would be rooted in idealism. Rather, it is more about sustenance and contentment: having enough money to get by, a satisfactory amount of love around you, and being in a content-enough state so as to not find oneself excessively comparing oneself and one’s life to others and their lives; being exceptionally okay with oneself, irrespective of external considerations like salaries or relationship statuses, at any given point in time. Almost everyone who took part in this survey also spoke about the pursuit of knowledge, and learning, as being crucial to the Good Life.
After gathering and analysing the responses I had been given, I realised I did not have any respondents, in my sample, who were over the age of seventy. But I came across a video online in which an 105-year-old woman, Jessie Jordan, shares her views on the ingredients needed for a long and happy life. “I think peace is more happiness. Peace. Having peace in your heart,” she tells us all.
So what is it that we all find ourselves chasing: peace or pleasure?
2) What would the ideal life entail? And how would it differ to the ‘good’ life?
People tackled this question from a number of different angles. The more religious respondents were inclined towards talking about Heaven. I, personally, would agree with them: in the temporal, highly physically limited states we currently find ourselves in, in this world, although we may have the faculties to be able to think idealistically, in reality, we are simply not suited towards living such lifestyles, right now.
Right now, in this temporal world – in the Dunya – problems are pretty much ever-present; everywhere. But this is how we work, and this is how the societies that we each find ourselves part of work: we experience problems, and we discover great meaning and purpose in the pursuit of solutions. The role of a doctor would have been utterly pointless if human illnesses did not exist. The role of a teacher would have been futile if all possible knowledge had simply been pre-ingrained into our minds; if we were born in a state of omniscience, as opposed to one of utter ignorance.
People’s idealistic fantasies tend to revolve around things that are plentiful, luxurious, unearthly and fantastical. Heaven. Paradise. Right now, we are able to fantasise about such things, but these things would do little to bring us long-lasting peace and happiness in the (earthly, impermanent) here and now. If we were all to achieve all our idealistic fancies here in this life, there would be an evident incongruity between our human conditions, and the lifestyles we would be living: we could accumulate as many supercars, castles (etc.) as we could fathom, but human nature would surely, quickly, catch up with us. We would get bored and restless.
Some people did approach this question from a quite ‘down-to-earth’ perspective: quite a few of the respondents said that their ideal lives would comprise things like having a widespread, meaningful, truly noticeable impact on the world; the ability to go on long bike rides in the countryside…
3. When do you reckon, over the course of your life thus far, were you the most happy? Why?
Unsurprisingly, most respondents said that they were happiest during their childhoods. Some pointed to specific memories that contributed to this being their truth: memories of waking up early solely in order to watch Disney Channel shows; being given glasses of milk by their mother before going to bed; being, for the most part, stress- and responsibility-free. Another thing that was evident, from a number of these responses, was that a significant factor that contributed to this childhood state of happiness was the fact that back then, we did not care what others thought about us. We were so blissfully unaware of things like our own physicality, while we were playing; so heedless of negative social judgement.
One respondent made a particularly interesting point: she said she thinks that “happiness can exist only when you know sadness”; that it is all a game of relativity. Thus, according to this view, because we may be sad now, or have come to know deep sadnesses since childhood, we have come to see our childhoods as having been the ‘happiest’ times in our lives.
4. What do you think most people dislike about themselves [and that acts as a barrier to their acquisition of the Good Life]?
The most popular theme that respondents touched upon, in response to this final question, was this one: people’s looks. Most people are insecure about certain aspects of their (or about their entire) appearances. This can have several secondary unfavourable effects: insecurities with one’s looks can affect one’s self-identity, as well as one’s behaviour around other people, and in the classroom or the workplace, and it can all take up a great deal of time and mental energy: how we feel about our appearances has the power to mould our entire realities. And sadly, we are living in an extremely visual and consumerist world, and the combination of these aspects tends to be particularly noxious for those of us who look like, you know, human beings. Stretch marks, chubbiness, skinniness, large birthmarks, uneven facial complexions. We want to air-brush these things away; look like the people we see in magazines, and on Instagram. It would appear as though we have collectively fallen in love with illusory cyborg appearances. We delude ourselves, by our own volition, with all this – once again: we know that ‘natural makeup’ is not natural at all; that, after a certain point, enlarged biceps stop serving a functional purpose in the real world [um…how many crates of apples do you intend to carry with those arms?] and yet we blindly consume from the funnels of all these outlets – these outlets whose job it is to create an evident separation between the ordinary (and real) and what is extremely elusive and difficult to attain: the stuff of Übermenschen.
The second most popular topic that was touched upon, in response to this fourth question, was about individual talents: discontentment with one’s abilities – academic, creative, professional – and a consequent ongoing feeling of being inadequate in comparison to others – leads to many being unable to taste the sweetness of their own lives, unfortunately. But it really does come down to that thing that we tell young children when they come to us and tell us why Maths could never be their favourite subject: “I’m no good at it”. But what is the point of being good at something, if you do not enjoy doing the thing in the first place? Personal enjoyment is far more joy-inducing and desirable, surely, than the knowledge that you have outshined others at what you are doing? Self-comparison truly is a notorious thief of joy, and it turns otherwise nice things – like the process of learning, or the arts of writing or painting – into mere competitions and boasting festivals…
The question of the Good Life has perplexed, fascinated, and inspired philosophers, poets, writers, artists, and humanity in general, alike, for centuries. What might a good human life look like? What are the barriers that prevent us from getting there? And how can we satisfactorily deal with said barriers?
We are, each of us, living on borrowed time; we are mere walking compilations of breaths – finite, and yet powerful. So small, and yet so inherently magical. And it is strange, really, how we all seem to know what decent and happy personal lives may comprise, but we still find ourselves rather stuck in our ways, stubbornly pursuing what brings us restlessness – in the absence of peace. These things, these ideas, may grant us some momentary kicks, perhaps, but they appear to leave behind them a lasting sense of discontentment.
It is truly peculiar, as aforementioned, how almost all of us know what the Good Life looks like, deep down. And yet we continue to romanticise and idealise the lives of YouTubers; music artists; athletes; models; extremely wealthy individuals… We hear all their emotional testimonies that perceptively bring them back down to the ordinary human plane: how sad they are, and dissatisfied, and confused. But yet, we continue to see their lives as the great ideal.
Celebrities buy flocks of super-cars (often) to compensate for erstwhile feelings of low self-worth. Cheap sex, cigarettes, drowning out unpleasant thoughts in alcohol and wild partying. The ‘Rich Kids of Instagram’ run out of even minutely meaningful things to do with their money; they come to realise that money actually exists as a means to an end, and not as an end in itself. It is just paper. Models obsessively pander to seasonal beauty trends; undergo various surgeries and learn numerous makeup practices. Many of them, in spite of the millions of positive comments and such they receive on their pictures, still feel like they are ugly. The goal that we are injected with, constantly, is to always aspire to be richer, prettier, smarter, faster: to amass as many roses as possible, without giving ourselves adequate time and space to actually smell the ones in our possession.
A good life, as we can all fairly unanimously agree, involves the following:
- Spirituality. This can generally be defined as the possession and maintenance of a positive connection with one’s soul, in conjunction with a sense of connectivity with the universe around us – and which we are a part of – as well as everything else it inhabits, including our fellow human beings, and animals. From all this, we benefit from an enduringly enriching sense of peace and purpose.
Although, in recent times, many have attempted to wholly secularise the concept of spirituality, presenting it and the notion of religion (i.e. the worship of our Creator) as being two centrally separable things, I think – and psychologists know – that the instinct to worship, in humans, is an innate one. Atheists have actively unlearnt – subverted and re-channelled this instinct (mainly into following liberal ideologies, in tandem with these newly engineered notions of ‘secular spirituality’); meanwhile, theists are acting upon an in-built human desire.
I think that religion itself is a sort of ‘organised spirituality’. But, of course, within organised religion, spirituality can often be (counterproductively, and antithetically to the aim of religion, which seeks to connect humans with our Creator, and with the rest of His creation) taken out of the equation. Religion sans spirituality is like a body without a soul: lacking animation. Or like knowledge without wisdom: lacking purpose.
- Tending, with great care, to our mental landscapes. To a great extent, life is what we each make of it: every experience we will ever have will be filtered through our mental landscapes. We must train ourselves to be more grateful; more able to see the good in things; more resistant to being susceptible to image-based and ideological deceit and delusion.
- Also nurturing our physical wellbeing; acknowledging that our bodies, minds and souls are inextricably linked. This means eating what is Tayyib (pure, good) and Halāl. Doing what humans need to do: drinking water. Exercising. Sleeping. [Playing!] In this temporal world, we are, like everything else that is physical, a system of parts. Overall physical health relies on the health of individual systems – cardiovascular, ocular, respiratory… all of it.
- Being content with who we are, at our cores. And [thus] embracing authenticity. Truly realising that comparing ourselves to our perceptions of others and their lives; trying to be other than what we are is unbelievably futile, and a waste of our (finite, precious) time on this planet. Everybody is made up of darkness (flaws, faults, past mistakes, and more) as well as light (talents, skills, merits, etc.). Perhaps true self-contentment would rely on our acceptance of the darknesses; our ventures towards self-improvement (and not perfection); our consciously choosing to focus on the good, thus forcing it to grow.
The achievement of a true, deep sense of self-contentment naturally results in the enrichment of our social connections – which we can healthily, meaningfully, take from and give to.
- Living a life of Mediums. The Qur’an and various Hadiths tell us that we Muslims are to be a nation of middles; that we should not commit excess in anything. No excess in food, nor in worship, nor sleep, exercise, consumption of news and information, studying… All this – this being given to excesses – disrupts the crucial balances that are needed for goodness. The Good Life is one that is not too quiet, nor too loud. Not too busy, nor too still. Not too routine-centric, nor too unpredictable. You get the picture.
- Personal pursuits. Creative outlets; personal projects; businesses; our career-related pursuits. It is an innate human need to have to feel at once connected and communal, and like individuals, at precisely the same time. In conjunction with spirituality, our personal pursuits imbue our lives with a sense of purpose.
- Reflection. Silence. Slowness. At least some time and space in our weeks – our days – for these necessary things. The world around us, in modern times, is just too frenetic, and too loud. Silence is one of the most beautiful melodies; it allows us to hear ourselves.
So many of us have been living in perpetual states of dissatisfaction, denial, delusion, and distraction, for so long. I think it is time for an awakening – a quiet but profound one, and one that thrusts us back into the sorts of lifestyles we should have been living all along: the Tayyib life – the ‘good’, human one. We are due for a good, deep spring clean – of our minds, bodies, (living spaces,) and souls. We can all find our ways to the truly Good life, but first, we may require a slight reminder of what it actually means to be (and live in accordance with our being) human…
Less: Materialism [“Things are just things; they don’t make you who you are,” – Macklemore. It is not about what we have, but about their functionality, and about what good we are able to (make ourselves) gain from them]. Jealousy. Restlessness. Exhaustion. Monotony. Over-thinking. Stress. Doing things for external approval or validation, rather than for the contentment of our own souls. Anger. Self-criticism; gratuitous criticism of others. Blind consumption of things that do not bring us peace [and this might include ‘muting’ certain people online; resisting the urge to check the news before bed; cutting down drastically on junk food].
More: Purpose. Helping others [“The best among you is the one who benefits others most.” – Prophet Muhammad (SAW)]. Intelligence: spiritual, emotional, worldly, historical, linguistic… Connection with nature [which we habitually forget that we are a part of. Caught between the terrestrial and the celestial, we human beings are…]. Positive experiences [after all, people don’t really want Lamborghinis: they want the experience of owning and driving one]. Learning. Love. Gratitude. Romanticisation of our lives [that cup of coffee in your hand is the best. Your train commutes in Spring are gorgeous, serene, like a cut-out scene from a Studio Ghibli movie. Romanticisation is not an identical concept to delusion. It is simply about taking heed of the fact that all human reality is experienced subjectively; through the vessels of our individual minds. Therefore, if you say to yourself that who you are, where you are – this very moment in time, and this point in space – and what you have are wonderful, and that it does not get better than this, this will become your personal truth – your reality]. A sense of connectedness. Self-comfort and -confidence. Making feelings of contentment far less conditional – whether on future periods of our lives, other people, or other places. Reflection. Becoming excellent – masters – of our personal pursuits. Hope. Īman. Excitement. Laughter. The goodness of life is to be found in all the intangible things.
It is, at once, entirely understandable, and yet quite surprising, just how many reverts to Islam – ex-avid partygoers, celebrities, people who had previously truly indulged in the adornments of this world (drugs, alcohol, sex…) without limit – have commented on how much peace the decision to accept Islam brought to their hearts and lives. The ‘sweetness of Īman’, they say, is worth more than all the pleasures of the world, put together.
“Alhamdulillah (thanking God) means everything. Drinking a glass of water – Alhamdulillah. Having an opportunity to speak to you – Alhamdulillah. Seeing my wife and kids – Alhamdulillah. I always have my creator in the front of my mind.
Look, I chased girls. I drank alcohol, spent lavishly and thought I was someone that I wasn’t. I lived that life and, in my experience, what did it give me? Hollowness and emptiness in my heart.”
– Sonny Bill Williams, New Zealand Professional Rugby Player
This is who we are: these are what our faces and bodies look like [Alhamdulillah]; these are our interests and hobbies; these are our financial situations; these are our histories; our ethnic cultures; our homes; these are our merits and talents. These are what our lives look like. The question is not about how much we can fantasise about being other people, about living different lives. The real question – the one whose answers can be conducive to us actually living Good Lives – is this one: how are we going to make the most of it all?
“Know that the life of this world is only play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting among you, and rivalry in respect of wealth and children, as the likeness of vegetation after rain, thereof the growth is pleasing to the tiller; afterwards it dries up and you see it turning yellow; then it becomes straw. But in the Hereafter (there is) a severe torment (for the disbelievers, evil-doers), and (there is) Forgiveness from Allah and (His) Good Pleasure (for the believers, good-doers), whereas the life of this world is only a deceiving enjoyment”
– Holy Qur’an (57:20)
Please share with others, if you found this post beneficial / think others might!
Sadia Ahmed, 2020